The Calm Before the Storm: How Teens and Libraries Can Fight Mental Illness

If you haven’t had a chance to read YALSA’s 2016-2018 Organization Plan, I highly recommend that you do because it rocks! Not only is this the plan that most of us have been waiting for, it is a sign that our work as teen library staff has shifted to focus on the needs of our teens and how YALSA can support us1:

Mission: Our mission is to support library staff in alleviating the challenges teens face, and in putting all teens ‒ especially those with the greatest needs ‒ on the path to successful and fulfilling lives.

Vision: Our vision is that all teens have access to quality library programs and services ‒ no matter where they occur ‒ that link them to resources, connected learning opportunities, coaching, and mentoring that are tailored to the unique circumstances of the community and that create new opportunities for all teens’ personal growth, academic success, and career development.

With this plan, we now have the opportunity to tackle difficult issues that our teens are experiencing such as mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “that 1 in 5 children, ages 13-18, have or will have serious mental illness where symptoms arise at the age of 14 and will eventually manifest by the time they are 24 years old.2” In other words, if we have 20 teens who regularly attend our programs, that means 4 of them are predisposed or have a serious mental illness. Furthermore, 90% of death by suicide occurred among teens with mental illness. With the current efforts that are being made to de-stigmatize mental illness and portray it as a disease that can be managed, libraries can raise awareness and join this much-needed conversation.

The number one question most of us will ask is: where do we start. Although it’s not an easy question, the first step we should always take is research. Here is a great list of organizations to check out:

When researching mental illness, it is imperative to recognize that mental illness affects everyone regardless of their ethnicity, gender, and/or age. More importantly, during the teen years, most symptoms are starting to surface as the disease doesn’t typically manifest until the young adult years.  In other words, that quiet teen who keeps to herself may actually be suffering in silence under the guise that she is “shy.” Another assumption that has had a negative impact is that adults often confuse mental illness with adolescent mood swings. According to Jamie Byrne, “Normal teenagers are often moody due to hormonal and physical changes that happen during puberty. However, when mental illness is involved, it may be difficult to differentiate “normal teenage behaviour” from the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other emotional difficulties.”3 While teens are developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, their “moods” make it difficult for us to decipher. However, as teen library staff, we have the chance to develop a rapport with our teens where they will feel comfortable enough to tell us what’s going on in their life. By creating programs and services that will help connect teens with the help they need, we are initiating a dialogue with the entire teen community that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and that the library is here to help them cope with their disease. Furthermore, this opportunity will allow us to reach out into our communities and connect with local health agencies to provide our staff with a training that not only discusses mental illness but how it affects teens specifically.

Now that we have an idea what mental illness, what do we do next? The best resource is our teens. Two weeks ago, my colleague and I presented the library’s teen advisory board with a plan to implement and sustain programs and services for an under-served group of teens. Among those groups were teens with special needs, teen parents, teens experiencing homelessness, and teens with mental illness. After giving the teens at least 20 minutes to chat, the group unanimously selected serving teens with mental illness. What was even more extraordinary is that within those 20 minutes the teens came up with a list of activities and services they would like to see in the library! I can’t tell you how awesome it was to sit there and listen to the teens express their interest in serving this group, especially since one of the members revealed that she lives and copes with mental illness.  Moments like these remind us that teens are very much in tune with their environments so it isn’t surprising that they are well aware of the need for mental health resources and services.

With the teens on board, and a commitment from us, we are in the process of developing this plan to create awareness and guide teens to resources. Here are some great ideas the teens came up with:

  • Develop a mental health resource center for teens and young adults containing:
    • Books, pamphlets, and flyers
    • A list of community resources
    • Checklists regarding moods and symptoms
    • Information for family and friends of someone with mental illness
  • Provide library staff with mental health first aid training
  • Developing a drop in counseling service where teens can talk to their peers in a safe setting
  • Create a support group for teens who may know someone, or live with, someone with mental illness
  • Libraries can sponsor a mentoring program where teens can talk with adults about living with mental illness
  • Workshops & Programs
    • Invite local mental health agencies to talk to teens about mental illness
    • Host a series of programs that will teach teens how to manage their mental health (i.e., develop coping mechanisms, reducing stress, and develop the strength to talk about their issues)
    • Host movie screenings that portray mental illness and have a panel of experts come in and breakdown the stereotypes of mental illness
  • Mental Health Awareness Campaign
    • Host a city or county-wide book club where teens and adults read and discuss books with characters who have mental illness
    • Select Mental Health Awareness Month (May) as the month the library hosts a program or workshop focusing on mental illness

This is just a sample of what these teens came up and it’s enough to get us off the ground and running. In fact, after consulting with teens, try hosting some of these programs to see if you can generate enough interest to take to management if you are looking to plan and implement programs and services system wide. Also, don’t forget to consult the resources in your community because they may be doing amazing things that the community has yet to learn about.

Although we are not social workers, therapists, or health care providers, we are advocates for teens that are unable to speak for themselves. Whether it’s talking to a teen in need and referring them to someone who can help them, we are most definitely qualified to do that. Teens from all walks of life visit our buildings every day and we have an obligation to make sure that we are not only serving them to the best of our ability, but support them to reach their full potential. Libraries are now the community engagement centers for all of our patrons so let’s connect our teens with the organizations and agencies who sole purpose is to provide service and care.  I am very excited to see where this amazing plan goes and how we, as teen library staff, can help each other care for our teen communities. For more information about Teens ans Mental Illness, check out “YA Mental Health Resources” at The Hub

References:

  1. http://www.ala.org/yalsa/aboutyalsa/strategicplan
  2. https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf
  3. http://www.asmfmh.org/resources/publications/normal-teenage-behaviour-vs-early-warning-signs-of-mental-illness/

About Deborah Takahashi

Deborah Takahashi is a Branch Librarian for the Pasadena Public Library. Deborah has been working with teens and children for seventeen years and loves every minute. As a Branch Librarian, Deborah literally does a little of everything which includes collection management, programming, outreach, and much, much more!
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